It is every security official’s nightmare that radioactive material will fall into the wrong hands. Securing such substances has always been a challenge, and there are numerous examples from around the world in recent history of radioactive material being stolen (according to their own data the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] receives approximately 100 reports of theft or loss of radioactive material each year). A particular trend we at Courcy’s Intelligence have been following is the relatively frequent thefts of radioactive material in Mexico.
As noted in today’s Daily Briefing from our sister service LatinNews, yesterday (15 April) Mexico’s interior ministry (Segob) issued an alert in five states after reporting that radioactive material had been stolen on 13 April from the Cárdenas municipality, in the southern state of Tabasco.
This is the third theft of radioactive material in the country in a little over 18 months, after one in December 2013 and another in June 2014. While the Mexican authorities remain unsure as to why criminal groups might have an interest in obtaining the material in the most recent case, serious concerns persist as to the potential threat that it could pose to national security.
There are also concerns that radioactive material stolen in Mexico could be transported to the US for criminal or terrorist purposes.
According to the alert issued by Segob’s national civil protection system, the recent theft was of a container holding an iridium-192 source, marked X-571. It was stolen from a truck belonging to local company Garantia Radiografica e Ingenieria. The firm notified the national nuclear security commission (Conasenusa) of the robbery yesterday. The statement warns that the substance is “very dangerous to people if removed from its container”, and the alert is in place for the states of Tabasco, Campeche, Chiapas, Oaxaca and Veracruz.
Iridium-192 is used mainly in industry, and also in medicine as a source of radiation to kill cancer cells. As regards its potential uses for a so-called ‘dirty bomb’ (radiological dispersal device [RDD] – a radiological weapon that combines radioactive material with conventional explosives), experts note as a drawback that iridium-192 loses its radioactivity relatively quickly, with a half-life of 74 days. However, iridium-192 could still be a tempting radiation source for terrorists. While the short half-life limits its effectiveness as an actual weapon for causing harm (not that it cannot cause harm, but that it would have to be used quickly rather than kept for future use), it is a sufficiently ubiquitous substance as to be obtainable.
Further, most security experts agree that an RDD would not actually have to be that harmful in and of itself to have a serious impact. One of the greatest impacts would likely be the fear generated if it were made public that someone had threatened to detonate a ‘dirty bomb’ somewhere public.
If a device were actually used there would have to be a massive public-health led response, causing tremendous disruption and at enormous cost. Even after a huge cleanup effort there are doubts as to whether the location of the detonation could be occupied again in the near future. Cleaning up radioactive material dispersed over a wide area would be extremely difficult, potentially impossible. Even if it were achieved it is possible that insurance companies could refuse to allow buildings that might have been contaminated or the land they stand on to be used again. By way of example, there are still buildings that cannot be used after the 2001 Amerithrax mailings – not because there is detectable anthrax remaining at the site, but because the authorities cannot offer a 100% guarantee that every spore of weaponised anthrax has been removed.
One of the most worrying aspects about the spate of thefts in Mexico is actually that the radioactive material has not always been the target. It certainly seems that the radioactive substance was targeted in the latest incident and also in the theft in June last year, in which a device (a soil compaction meter) containing caesium-137 and americium-beryllium was stolen from a lab by armed men. But in December 2013, the target of the theft actually appears to have been the truck that was being used to transport it. It is concerning that controls and security for transporting radioactive material appear to be weak enough to allow this to happen so easily – in the 2013 theft the truck was hijacked while the driver was asleep, having pulled into a service station for a nap.
As it happens, the material stolen in 2013 was recovered relatively quickly, having been abandoned by the thieves who likely had no idea what was in the truck when they stole it. But had they been of a mind to sell it on when they discovered it instead of dump it the consequences could have been far more serious.
In fact, an RDD is only one possibly harmful use of radioactive material. It could be used to perpetrate murder: in 2006 Alexander Litvinenko, as dissident former FSB (the successor to Russia’s KGB) agent was poisoned in London with polonium-210; in 2004 Roman Tsepov, an influential Russian businessman was poisoned with an unknown radioactive substance (his symptoms were similar to Litvinenko’s); in 2001 an unnamed man stole a small amount of plutonium from Wiederaufbereitungsanlage Karlsruhe, a reprocessing plant where he worked, with the intention of using it to murder his ex-wife. As well as being a horrible way to die, radiation poisoning, let alone the specific material used, is not always easy to diagnose quickly (if at all depending on the facilities available), and is certainly unlikely to be thought of first as a cause of symptoms, and so is an effective murder weapon, provided the murderer is sufficiently skilled to avoid poisoning themselves as well.
Another threat to public health is ignorance – sometimes devices containing radioactive material are stolen to be sold as scrap, the thieves oblivious to the dangerous radiation within. In 2000 in Thailand, three people died after a cobalt-60 teletherapy unit was sold as scrap metal and dumped in a junkyard. According to an IAEA statement issued at the time, about 1,870 people living nearby were exposed to “some elevated level of radiation”.
Long term, repeated thefts in Mexico will likely spur on the authorities to improve security around the use, storage and transport of radioactive material to IAEA standards, but in the interim it appears there remain vulnerabilities.